Is Dublin’s unbeaten run a distraction from their real quest?
With county chasing a three-in-a-row, might Jim Gavin have preferred to lose in league?
Eric Lowndes gets away from Kerry’s Adrian Spillane in Tralee. Dublin emerged from a feral atmosphere with their record intact. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
Maybe the Wild West provides the most appropriate imagery to describe what life is like for the Dublin footballers: a gunfight every weekend or so against fired-up rivals determined to take them down. Not getting beaten is better than the alternative, but it does take a toll.
If we skip genres, is there a trace of the vampire curse about what’s happening – the gothic existentialism of moving through time drawing blood but wondering would there be peace in it all coming to an end?
Back in the real world Dublin are expected to rewrite history on Saturday evening by becoming the outright holders of the longest unbeaten run in league and championship and finally eclipse the achievements of a great Kerry team, which has been incidentally brought back to life by the sudden contemporary focus on their great but largely forgotten deeds from nearly a century ago.
Might Jim Gavin have preferred to lose a thriller in Breffni Park on the first day of the new season or see Tyrone slip free of the late reckoning that drew the match in Croke Park?
Are there any concerns that with three matches to go to championship, the record becomes a burden, clocking up a new total with every win and intensifying the hype around what will already be a high-profile season tilting at a first three-in-a-row for Dublin in 93 years?
Gavin and his management can’t be accused of courting the record. There has been no rush to recall the front-liners any more quickly in order to strengthen selections for big matches and the opportunity to test-drive panel players has been taken, albeit in some cases because of injuries.
Still, the record kept on track. Admittedly there have so far been three draws, all of which offered some solace to the opposition even if there was also regret, certainly in Tyrone and Kerry, that a stop could have been put to the unbeaten sequence before it got any farther.
In particular Kerry were up for the scrap last weekend. Not alone was their own county’s record about to be equalled but as Martin Carney remarked on RTÉ just after the All-Ireland semi-final seven months ago: “Dublin have gone from being an irritant to Kerry to a full-blown plague.”
The provocation and scrapping, presumably “to lay down a marker”, added to the feral atmosphere in Stack Park and Dublin did well to emerge with their run still intact.
Specifically on the field, the challenges are what they have been throughout recent years: teams focus relentlessly on Stephen Cluxton kick-outs and pack defences to minimise exposure to fast breaks and accurate kick passing.
Both stratagems are demanding and often don’t last the 70 minutes but Kerry made a good fist of it in Tralee on Saturday, pushing up on the kick-outs, allowing only a handful to go uncontested and at times interfering with the kick-out in a manner – knocking the ball away, which was the trigger for the scatter between Cluxton and Paul Geaney – that won’t be as easy to get away with in the summer.
Kerry have tended to do well on the Dublin goalkeeper’s restarts, from pillaging them in the 2011 All-Ireland to getting bang for their buck in the three from 21 they got their hands on in last year’s semi-final. It is, however, no secret that pushing up yields results; the problem is more the big risk of what happens if the kick-out beats the press and exposes the rest of the field.
The issue then becomes whether a team has the stamina to keep doing this throughout the match and it was noticeable last August that after profiting from pressing Cluxton, Kerry became more cautious in the second half.
Although last weekend Kerry fielded some young players and did well at centrefield, where David Moran and Jack Barry had the upper hand, there was no great disparity between the teams in terms of experience. Dublin fielded 14 players who had featured in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final; Kerry used 13.
Dublin have a number of big names to return to the team: Jonny Cooper, James McCarthy, Jack McCaffrey and Diarmuid Connolly weren’t there; Cian O’Sullivan and Bernard Brogan made their first appearance of the season off the bench and Paul Flynn hasn’t started a match yet.
At the back of Gavin’s mind there must be the realisation that not all starters from last year will necessarily have the same status this season. He himself made the observation after winning the 2013 All-Ireland that no dressing-room remains the same even after success. Some people go and others arrive, but it’s never the same.
He also knew last Christmas that club commitments would deprive him of a couple of forwards, namely Diarmuid Connolly and more frustratingly Con O’Callaghan. Rising star O’Callaghan is now the proud possessor of an All-Ireland club hurling medal with Cuala, but from the management perspective, he would otherwise have been given opportunities in the league.
In the circumstances, there has been an opening for Conor McHugh, whose minted skills have needed to be complemented with more of an edge; but he has paid his way with a reputable 1-6 from three starts. Another element of frustration has been Cormac Costello’s recurrent hamstring problem, which flared again last week and has prevented him from really kicking on after the stunning All-Ireland-winning three points he sent over in last October’s replay.
Aside from selection challenges on the horizon, there is the question of mental fatigue. By the end of last year’s championship Dublin looked tired, if defiant, but got over the line. Stalking Gavin’s thoughts will be the knowledge that the only questions worth answering have to be tackled in August. Everything else – records and all – is deferral.